Birds of a feather

    Trainspotting is a new fiction series focusing on imagined accounts of real patrons of the New York City subway. Kayleigh Roberts is on her journalism residency in New York, and the stories are based on her experiences people watching/daydreaming on the train.

    “Hello! HELLLLOOOO?! This train? You sure you want to get on this train? Looks awfully crowded, huh? HELLO?!” he squawks, shuffling his round body – like a humongous bouncy ball with limbs – along the platform. She stands back, letting him do his thing. He won’t bother her and that’s all that matters.

    They have been together for three years now. They are companions, but not romantically involved. The height difference alone – she almost six feet tall, he a couple inches shy of the five foot mark – would rule out romance in her mind. And then there’s the personality. He’s loud, boisterous even, the kind of person who says things just to be saying things. She is quiet, shy even, the kind of person who doesn’t say things even when she should.

    The only thing they have in common is that they are both birdlike, despite their vastly different appearances. He, like an overweight wood warbler, is round and short to the point of seeming misshapen or deformed. His nose is long, too straight and beak-ish. Should the Penguin ever tire of Gotham City, Manny the Wood Warbler could take his place, no problem. She, Susan, is a gray crowned crane, right down to the poof of thin, wispy, feathery curls that sprout upward from her head, as if her head is stuck in a constant state of zero gravity.

    When they met, Manny harassed her, following her for six blocks asking if she had spare change.

    “Hey lady,” he said. “Hey lady, can I have a dollar?”

    Susan walked on, silently.

    “Fifty cents?”

    She sped up.

    “A quarter?”

    Faster still.

    “A dime?”

    Almost running.

    “A nickel?”

    Defeat. Stopped by the blazing red-orange hand at the crosswalk and a steady stream of yellow taxis, making sure she obeyed.

    “Why?” She sighed, looking down, so far down at him.

    “I don’t know, just like to see when people break,” he shrugged. “You though, you’re good.”

    Manny was not in grave financial need; certainly his was no greater than her own. When the white walking man replaced the forewarning hand at the crosswalk, he followed her, still talking incessantly, but no longer asking for anything. He walked with her down the street: “You live here your whole life? Me, I’m from Cuba. I swam to Texas and then I, you know, hitchhiked to, uh, Maine and stole a car and drove it…here.” He walked with her around the corner: “So I really got you with that Cuba story huh? The swimming and hitchhiking and all? Seriously, I’m from Mexico (which he, exaggerating his very slight accent, pronounced Meh-HE-co) and I dug a hole under that biiiiiig fence, you know?” He walked with her the next four blocks to her apartment: “You know lady, you too gullible. I’m not really from Mexico (Meh-HE-co). My mother though, she was – no lie. And my dad, he was too, but like, not so directly, you know?” (She neither knew nor cared.) “And I’ve been in the city for about…ooh, I was 25, so…oh shit, 20 years. How long you lived here? Your whole life? Anyway, I got to get going. I see you tomorrow?”

    At this point, she rolled her eyes and raised her middle and index fingers in a sort of almost wave goodbye. Manny waved back – the kind of wave in which one raises his or her hand up, spreads out all of the fingers and shakes it from side-to-side – and latched on to the nearest passerby.

    “Hey fella,” he yelled. “Can I have a dollar?”

    The next afternoon, when Susan finally got around to leaving the apartment for her Saturday errands, Manny was there, sitting on her stoop.

    “So lady, where to today?” he perked up at the sight of her.

    “Grocery,” she was surprised, but not shocked. Susan was never shocked, which is probably why she and Manny got along so well.

    “Excellent, I need squash,” he announced as he stood up and brushed dirt off the back of his pants.

    Now, most days, Manny is there when Susan leaves her apartment. He follows her on errands, on her way to work, out to movies. She’s not sure what Manny does for a living – he tells her so many different things and it’s difficult to sort out the lies from the truth. He knows that her job is answering phones, and he never ceases to find the humor in someone who hates talking as much as she does making her living talking to strangers all day. The phone is different though. It’s anonymous. Manny is never anonymous. She shrinks back when he does things like this, yelling random things on crowded subway platforms. She pretends she doesn’t know him, sometimes even going so far as to make knowing eye contact with another person, letting her gaze say, “Yeah, I wish that asshole would shut up too,” sometimes throwing in a shake of the head that adds, “Who would be friends with a person like that?”

    She’s doing this tonight and feeling that twinge in her gut that accuses her of wrongdoing, tells her she’s a bad person and should feel both guilt and shame in ample measure. Her gut says, “You are a bad friend, Susan.”

    Her brain, the part that feels embarrassment and works to avoid the feeling (she imagines this as the front left portion, right under her temple where the throbbing feel comes when he does these things), counters immediately, “No, you can’t be a bad friend, Susan, because you and Manny are not friends.”

    “Not friends?” says the gut with an added pang of guilt to punish the brain for even articulating the thought.

    “No, not friends,” the brain insists. “He’s some weirdo, some freak who follows you around. You don’t ever ask him to come. You wouldn’t know how if you wanted to because you don’t know his address, his phone number, his last name. You don’t know these things because you don’t want to know them, because you don’t care. You don’t have to feel guilty for being embarrassed. In fact, you shouldn’t feel embarrassed at all. He is no reflection of you.”

    The gut wrenches. “That just makes you an even worse friend. You’ve never had a friend, other than Manny. Who are you to judge how friendships are formed? You’re the freak for avoiding contact, not he for seeking it out. Manny does know your address, your phone number, your last name and he would do anything for you.”

    “He would not,” the brain is angry now. “He’s a short, fat, self-absorbed asshole. He only cares about getting a rise out of people and he’s only still hanging around you because you are his greatest project. As soon as you react, really react, he will leave and move on and lose interest in you.”

    The gut twists and everything within it lurches and swirls and threatens to escape. The brain throbs and pulsates and wants very badly to explode right there. The heart, heretofore uninvolved in the exchange, stops.

    Susan forgets her embarrassment. She forgets the inner battle. She forgets where she is. She clutches her chest, squeezing as though she can make it pump again. She wills it to be so, but it is not so. She falls.

    “Manny?!” She whimpers as those nearest begin frantically dialing 911 on cell phones that don’t have service and asking if anyone knows CPR and vaguely directing others to “get help.”

    The train comes. Manny, a little way down the platform and close to the doors, looks back.

    “Susan?” He yells and waves his stubby arm in the air, to grab her attention. He looks for her hair. Even from his height, he can always see her puff of hair, towering above everyone. He does not see her hair. She has left him, embarrassed, as she so often does. Probably snuck onto the one train on the other side of the platform, content to take the long way home if spared the embarrassment.

    Manny sighs and gets on the train. He’ll see her tomorrow, he decides.


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